Frog – צְפַרְדֵּעַ (tsephardea); βάτραχος (batrachos)
An ambivalence of [to] frogs
About this time of year (June), millions of tiny froglets, that have just developed from tadpoles, will be making their first forays onto land. Frogs typify our often ambivalent relationship with nature. For many, they are the epitome of ‘otherness’ (the non-human).
I remember one evening, when I was a lad, sitting alone beside the pond in our back garden and suddenly being aware of these two deathly-still eyes staring at me with an icy intensity. As I looked, I became aware of another set… and then another. I can still feel that chill of realisation that I wasn’t as alone as I thought I was!
There is something deeply unhuman (not inhuman) about them; their look, their feel, the way they move; transgressing boundaries by inhabiting the worlds of water and air. And yet, there is also something very human about them. Just think about how easily they can be anthropomorphised in children’s stories from Aesop’s Tales through to Beatrix Potter and Rupert Bear. Some people find them repellent, others love them – they provoke so many different feelings and responses. It is therefore not surprising that this ambivalence is also reflected in the biblical texts and traditions.
Frogs as divine agents
The frog, צְפַרְדֵּעַ (tsephardea), is mentioned 13 times in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), and each time it is in reference to the 2nd of the 10 plagues of Egypt (11x Exodus 18 and 2x Psalms). It has been suggested that the frog in question is probably the Rana punctata (spotted frog) or perhaps the Rana esculenta (edible frog) (United Bible Societies, 1980:33; France, 1986:63; Goodfellow, 2015:113). The plague of frogs was clearly meant as a curse and its purpose was to convince Pharaoh to release the Israelites from their captivity.
Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh and say to him, “Thus says the Lord: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. 2If you refuse to let them go, I will plague your whole country with frogs. 3The river shall swarm with frogs; they shall come up into your palace, into your bedchamber and your bed, and into the houses of your officials and of your people, and into your ovens and your kneading bowls. 4The frogs shall come up on you and on your people and on all your officials.” ’
Exodus 8:1-4 (NRSV)
Although there is an element of blackmail in the initial warning/threat (8:2), we see a dominant biblical motif developing where the natural world – and animals in particular – are viewed as the potential instruments of divine justice. It has been noted that the 10 plagues comprise a sequence of 5 pairs; the blood and frogs specifically relating to the essential ‘life-blood’ of Egypt, the River Nile.
This is no coincidence. Millions of frogs spawned after the annual inundation of the Nile that irrigated the otherwise arid land and was so crucial the Egyptian harvests (and economy). The Egyptians viewed the frog as a symbol of fertility and worshipped Heqet (sometimes spelt Heqat), the Egyptian goddess of fertility, who was sometimes depicted having a frog’s head (see for example, Goodfellow, 2015:115).
The link between Egypt and the frog is made even plainer in the account when it describes how, through their ‘mysteries’, the Egyptian court magicians could replicate this feat.
6So Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt; and the frogs came up and covered the land of Egypt. 7But the magicians did the same by their secret arts, and brought frogs up on the land of Egypt.
Exodus 8:6-7 (NRSV)
The only other time these magicians could reproduce one of Moses (or rather) Aaron’s miracles was by making a stick turn into a snake (Exodus 7:10-12) – also viewed by the Egyptians as having sacred significance.
Nevertheless, the intended message of the Exodus account is clear, a plague of frogs was a bad thing and Pharaoh, accordingly had to plead with Moses and Aaron to ‘take away the frogs.’ We are then told that God heard the cry of Moses and:
13And the Lord did as Moses requested: the frogs died in the houses, the courtyards, and the fields. 14And they gathered them together in heaps, and the land stank.
Exodus 8:13-14 (NRSV)
The New Testament has just one mention of the frog, βάτραχος (batrachos). It appears in Revelation 16, which describes another – rather different – set of plagues, although, as the United Bible Societies (1980:33) notes, clearly an allusion to the Egyptian plague and still relating to divine judgement.
However, this time the frogs are clearly expressed as a simile and is therefore meant to be read figuratively:
13And I saw three foul spirits like [ὅμοιος – homoios] frogs coming from the mouth of the dragon, from the mouth of the beast, and from the mouth of the false prophet.
Revelation 16:13 (NRSV)
It is also clear that, for whom/whatever these frogs are figures working they are not the instruments of God – they are altogether working for the ‘other side’! The United Bible Societies (1980:33) suggest that there are possible links with the association of frogs with the evil Persian god Ahriman to whom they belong.
Why the frog has no teeth
Allied to the association between frogs and malignancy is the Haggadic midrash on Genesis that “[a]t the Creation, the Lord deprived it of teeth do that it would not threaten other animals in the water”. (They actually do have teeth!)
The mole and the frog had to be made harmless in similar ways [to the serpent]; the former has no eyes, else it were irresistible, and the frog has no teeth, else no animal in the water were sure of its life.
Legends of the Jews 1.67
The frog as role model
Nevertheless, there is another and much more positive side to the frog that we also encounter in later Jewish tradition. The croaking of frogs has often been compared to a song. In 1984, Paul McCartney famously produced a short animated film featuring Rupert Bear and the Frog Song.
The notion of the croaking frog with ‘musicality’ is also reflected in the number of ‘natural-sound’ recordings marketed for their relaxing qualities; for example, the Echoes of Nature’s Frog Chorus album.
It is this quality of the frog that is utilised within Jewish tradition. The beautiful 10th century CE (possibly older) Jewish song of nature, the Perek Shirah, records the songs of praise of many different animals (and elements) of the natural world, and it singles out the frog in a very special way. The prefatory text that introduces to us the songs of nature tells us how the frog not only challenges David’s pride about the numerous psalms (hymns) he had composed, but showed itself to be more faithful in word and deed than him. It states:
The Sages said concerning King David that when he completed the book of Psalms, he became proud. He said before the Holy One, Blessed be He, “Is there any creature You have created in Your world that says more songs and praises than I?” At that moment a frog happened across his path, and it said to him: David! Do not become proud, for I recite more songs and praises than you. Furthermore, every song I say contains three thousand parables, as it says, “And he spoke three thousand parables, and his songs were one thousand five hundred.” And furthermore, I am busy with a great mitzvah [good deed or religious duty], and this is the mitzvah with which I am busy – there is a certain type of creature by the edge of the sea whose sustenance is entirely from [creatures living in] the water, and when it is hungry, it takes me and eats me, such that I fulfil that which it says, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you shall heap coals of fire on his head, and God shall reward you”; do not read “shall reward you” but instead “shall make him complete you.”
The selflessness and humility (as well as its skill in ‘singing’) of the frog is later re-affirmed in the main text. Here the frog is depicted as declaiming from the Talmud, Pesachim 56a: “The frog is saying, “Blessed is the Name of the honour of His Kingdom for all eternity.”
Another tradition, unfortunately not attributed, relating to the frog’s selflessness is noted by France (1986:63) who observes that the frog is sometimes viewed as being the “model for self-sacrifice since it offers itself as food to starving aquatic creatures in fulfilment of the injunction ‘if thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat.’.”
‘To learn the song the frogs sing’
An association between frogs and wisdom is supported by the later Jewish folklore. One lovely story describes how a frog taught Rabbi Hanina the whole of the Torah as well as the 70 human languages and the language of the birds and animals by writing down the words on pieces of paper and making Hanina swallow them.1
Rabbi Natan Slifkin (2009: 56), in his commentary on the Perek Shirah, includes a rather lovely final note about the frog.
“After the passing of the Maggid of Mezritch, his disciples began talking amongst themselves and contemplating the details of his deed, and the events that transpired with him. Rabbi Maladi interjected: Do you know the reason why our master would go out every day, in the small hours of the dawn, to the pools and wells, where the frogs croak? The Rabbi Maladi responded: I will tell you his purpose. He went to learn the song that the frogs say to the Holy One, as he explained in the Perek Shirah, and he wanted to her how they praise and give glory to the Holy One.”
There is a very similar story within Christian tradition. Richard Bauckham (2002:147) quotes a story about a Saxon saint, Benno of Meissen (1010-1106). Apparently St Benno had a habit of going into the fields in order to meditate and pray. One day, as St Benno passed by a marsh, “a talkative frog was croaking in its slimy waters.” To avoid the unwelcome noise disturbing his devotions, he ordered the frog to be silent. However, after a little way, St Benno was reminded of the verse in Daniel [Song of Azariah 1:57; 592] that instructs: “Bless the Lord, all you whales and all that swim in the waters… Bless the Lord all wild animals and cattle ; Sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.” Fearing that God might actually find the frog’s song more pleasing than his own prayers, St Benno commanded the frogs to praise God according to their own ways, at which the air and fields were filled with their praise.
1 For the full story of the Frog and Rabbi Hanina – The Fairy Frog
2 Part of the long version of Daniel in the Septuagint (Greek version of the Hebrew Bible). It can be found in the apocrypha or deuterocanon as the ‘Prayer of Azariah’ .
Bauckham, R. (2002) ‘Joining creation’s praise for God’. In. Bauckham, R. (ed.) (2012) Living with Other Creatures: Green exegesis and theology. Milton Keynes: Paternoster. pp.147-162.
France, P. (1986) An Encyclopedia of Bible Animals. London: Croom Helm.
Goodfellow, P. (2015) Flora and Fauna of the Bible: A guide for Bible readers and naturalists. Oxford: John Beaufoy.
Slifkin, N. (2009) Perek Shirah: Nature’s song. New York: Zoo Torah
United Bible Societies. (1980) Fauna and Flora of the Bible. Helps for Translators. 2nd edn. London: United Bible Societies.